Singapore, the most developed and urbanized country in Asia where “Where East meets West”. This relatively new city-country is where a confluence of diverse cultures meet to create a truly unique place.
Singapore is very safe and easy to get around with its ultra modern subway system. Coupled with the fact that most Singaporeans speak English, its not hard to see why this country is often the top choice for people who have not been to Asia before. Here you can enjoy the same food and culture, minus the chaos and language barriers that exist with other Asian countries. The only drawback is that the costs are significantly higher than the rest of Southeast Asia.
Singapore is a city that caters to all types of travelers whatever your interests may be, whether it’s urban or natural attractions. People coming to the city for the first time usually gravitate toward the well known places like the shopping mecca on Orchard Road or head over to Sentosa Island – Asia’s favorite playground. But there are so many other wondrous sights in this small country, each one interesting in its own way. Our 4 day stay was barely long enough to fully discover this bustling city. Here are a few of my favorite places:
1. Bugis Market – The sprawling Bugis Street Market, located right across from the MRT station is home to over 800 independent retail stalls selling all kinds of stuff from knickknacks to food and clothing. Singapore’s largest flea market is popular with both locals and tourists. The shops usually open around 11:00 am and stay open until the last of the crowds leave, which usually is around 10 or 11 pm on the weekends.
The covered market has long shaken off its naughty side and revamped into a shopping hub. Fifty years ago, this area was the center of Singapore’s seedy nightlife, filled with gambling dens and workers of the night who would flock into town to entertain foreign servicemen on R&R. Today there is a neon-sign sex shop around as a nod to its sleazier past.
In this cheap shopping paradise you can find virtually anything you need from head to toe. A pair of jeans will set you back just $10 SGD, shirts and t-shirts range from $5 SGD, shoes are as cheap as $15 SGD. Little trinkets such as souvenir key chains, postcards, and stationary are sold for $1 SGD. There are even tasty snacks and food sold in the market if you’re hungry. Although fashion is not Singapore’s most cutting-edge, there are some good finds if you have the patience to weave through the maze of stalls.
2. Haji Lane – I’ll let you in on a little secret – I don’t usually go shopping when I travel. Sure I buy souvenirs and knickknacks but serious shopping has never really appealed to me for a few reasons: One, because I don’t want to lug my purchases around for the rest of the trip; and two, because I am pretty confident that I can probably find what I want in NY. So imagine my surprise when when I fell in love with all the shops in Haji Lane.
Haji Lane is one of the must-do shopping experiences for those on the lookout for extraordinary items. The narrow lane has gained popularity in recent years with its eclectic collection of independent multi-label boutiques selling a great selection of avant-garde designs, quirky accessories, as well as hip bars and cafes. There are bright pops of color everywhere you look along the long narrow lane from the candy-colored shop fronts to the interesting murals.
A trip to Haji Lane is all about the experience. Take your time weaving through the dozens of shops while admiring the Peranakan architecture from the vintage letterboxes to the planter box aquarium. This place is full of old-world charm, a stark contrast to the gleaning modern city. The lane still retains the charm of a close-knit community, where storeowners cheerfully greet shoppers and provide support to one another.
3. Little India is a vibrant neighborhood that shows off one of Singapore’s many ethic communities. Indian migrant workers were among the first to come to Singapore in the early 19th century as part of a larger interlocking colonial network. You only have to walk down Serangoon Road, the neighborhood’s main street to marvel at the glittering storefronts selling everything from jewelry to saris. There is an explosion of fragrance drifting out from the various restaurants off on the side streets. This is where you can find authentic Indian cuisine. There are also a mix of Hindu and Chinese temples, mosques and churches.
One of my favorites is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the city. This distinctive landmark in the heart of Little India was built by the early Indian laborers and dedicated to Kali, the goddess and destroyer of all evil. On the outside is an explosion of colorful deities adorning the entrance tower. While inside are conflicting images of Kali showing her wearing a garland of skulls and ripping out the insides of her victims in one, and another depicting her in a more peaceful family moment with her sons Ganesha and Murugan.
The temple is busiest during each of the four daily puja (prayer) sessions. We were fortunate to come at the right time and witness one of these sessions lead by the priests. It started with a bathing ceremony and and ended with a sacred flame offering while rousing music was being played. It was the first time I’ve ever been inside a Hindu temple and witnessed a prayer session.
4. Chinatown was one of the settlement areas set aside by the founder of colonial Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, for the early settlers who came from different parts of China. The Hokkiens were the first to arrive in 1821. They built Thian Hock KenTemple (“Temple of Heavenly Happiness”), Chinatown’s oldest and most important temple. In the early years Chinese sailors would visit this place to pray for safe travel, before land reclamation pushed the sea further down the road. Now it stands amongst the sleek modern buildings as an ornate reminder of Chinatown’s beginnings.
The remarkable architecture of the building is in the traditional southern Chinese style with detailed symbolic carvings and sculptures. The stone lions at the entrance are there to ward off evil spirits, while the painted depiction of phoenixes and peonies in the central hall symbolize peace and good tidings. The main prayer hall features an image of the Queen of Heaven. The most amazing part is that the whole structure is only supported by wood and brick and not a single nail was used in the original construction of the temple.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is another worthy visit in Chinatown. Built in 2007, the Tang-style five-storey building is a recent addition to the historic Chinatown district. It contains the sacred Buddha Tooth Relic as well as many other Buddhist artifacts and exhibits. This temple, though steeped in tradition, is quite modern. There are elevators taking you to different floors and the whole place has AC, which is different from any other temples I’ve been to.
The dazzling Sacred Light Hall on the fourth floor is home to the left canine tooth of the Buddha, recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, India. This centerpiece is housed inside a giant stupa weighing 3.5 tons and made from 420 kg of gold. Only monks are allowed inside the relic chamber while visitors are permitted to see it from the public viewing area. More religious relics await on the 3rd and 2nd floor museums. For some quiet contemplation and meditation, you should visit the lush roof garden, with its Buddha prayer wheel, a sanctuary in a busy city.
From the temple, continue walking along South Bridge Road and explore the rest of Chinatown Proper. Chinatown comes alive at night, especially during the mid-autumn festival and other Chinese holidays. The streets are decorated with colorful lanterns and filled with people. The Night Market, consisting of 200 stalls, stretches over four streets selling souvenirs such as bags, scarves, magnets, key chains and more. There are many hawker stalls selling Chinese food specialties, slightly different from the noodle peddlers on the street in the olden days, but still just as good. Chinatown might have evolved over the years, but if you look carefully, you can still see remnants of the old community.
5. Botanical Gardens – This 74-hectare botanical garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the country’s first UNESCO Heritage Site, joining the highly illustrious group of other iconic landmarks like the Angkor Wat and Parthenon. The sprawling grounds in the heart of the city stand as a testament to Singapore’s reputation as a City in a Garden.
Singapore Botanic Garden’s well-defined landscape includes a dazzling array of over 60,000 plants making it a nature lovers’ paradise. The garden is divided into many easy to explore zones from the Evolution Garden to the Palm Valley. The highlights include The National Orchid Garden, which boasts the world’s largest display of over 1000 species of orchids. There is even a section for celebrity orchids, each one planted by dignitaries, heads of state or royalty that visited the garden. There is an admission fee of SGD5 to visit the Orchid Garden, while the rest of the Botanic Gardens are FREE to explore. Due to the size of the complex, it’s likely that you’ll need a few hours to see the main attractions. It took us over 3 hours to walk through the whole garden. Due the the high temperatures and humidity, it’s advisable that you bring water to stay hydrated. Some people even pack a lunch and picnic on the premises.
Nestled in the middle of the garden is the beautiful Shaw Symphony Stage, where the Singapore Symphony Orchestra holds frequent free concerts. In the cool evening, people come out to the palm lined valley to enjoy the lively music. Classical music enjoyed in nature’s lush greenery is quite a magical experience, ask any Singaporean.